Books: Woom by Duncan Ralston

Thanks once again to my Kindle Unlimited subscription, I happened to randomly come across a fantastic novella by an author I was not previously familiar with, and goddammit, I just love when that happens. Canadian writer Duncan Ralston has penned several novels and novellas, and some short fiction anthologies like Gristle & Bone and Video Nasties. According to his notes at the end of this particular book, 2021’s Woom was his first attempt at a longer-form “extreme” horror story.

And this is absolutely extreme, so casual horror readers probably need not apply, because as the story goes on, it moves very quickly from “WTF did I just read” territory straight into weapons-grade levels of messed up. It’s not so much extreme gore, but there are a lot of really fucked up sexual situations, body horror, and twisted psychologies going on here. It isn’t the most revolting thing I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely up there.

I do read some extreme horror from time to time, though I’m by no means a connoisseur, and I’ve found that there can be a fine line between using transgressive, shocking imagery in service to a larger point or narrative, and just being disgusting for the sake of it. Woom, maybe more so than almost any other extreme work I’ve read, is very solidly on the former side of that equation, and is consequently outstanding. It is certainly gross and uncomfortable, but it was also surprisingly heartfelt, nuanced, and excellently written.

If you want to read Woom, I would suggest going into it not knowing anything about it; I’m not going to spoil anything outright, but this is a book that is much better just going into it blind. Just be warned that it is definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach, and I really do mean that, so caveat emptor.

Woom is an anthology of sorts, in that it’s largely comprised of two characters telling increasingly disturbing stories to one another that end up interlocking. In that way, its closest analogue would be Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and Duncan Ralston acknowledges Palahniuk as one of his big influences. And this might be a bold statement, but I think I actually liked Woom a bit better than Haunted. Don’t get me wrong, Haunted is a masterpiece, but there was something about the more intimate vibe of Woom that resonated more with me, with its two damaged and eminently sympathetic characters exchanging their horrific pasts; the focus on just the two of them lets the reader really get into their heads and establish a deep emotional connection.

At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to Angel, a sharp-dressed man with a scarred face, who has just checked into room number 6 at the Lonely Motel, a seedy joint on the outskirts of town that rents rooms by the hour. He’s always felt drawn to this particular room, because his mother died here, and several other significant events—all of which will be revealed as the tale goes on—also went down in this very same location. Angel seems to have reached a point in his life where he feels he’s come full circle, and it’s therefore fitting that he should be back in this room, where it all began.

Shortly after arriving, he calls an escort service and requests a plus-size woman; the bigger, the better. The reader learns that he has done a similar thing before, as he complains that the last time he requested a sex worker, the woman wasn’t big enough.

This time, though, he seems happy when Shyla arrives at his door, as she seems ideal for…whatever it is that he’s planning to do. At first, it seems that all he wants to do is talk, and he tells Shyla a story about a young man named Johnny and his girlfriend Jenny; a tragic and nauseating story that involves drug muling, and that’s all I’ll say about it. After the conclusion of that tale, he reaches for his backpack, which contains dildos of increasing sizes, and he gets to work on Shayla as they exchange more stories.

Said stories involve everything from a gangbang porn shoot to a coat-hanger abortion to a hippie rebirthing cult to a man who’s really into being smothered by a vagina. And there’s also a story involving a mannequin that kinda needs to be read to be believed. When I describe them in a list form like that, it all sounds so random, but believe me, all the stories are interconnected, and all share similar themes of sex, death, rebirth, and motherhood.

For those into extreme horror, this is an easy recommend; it’s an excellent example of the genre. It’s depraved and grotesque but beautifully written, with richly-drawn characters that tug at the reader’s heartstrings, even as they are relaying the most repulsive and appalling events. In his endnotes, the author mused that he might revisit the Lonely Motel in a future work, detailing other stories taking place in other rooms, and I’d be completely on board with that. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing Woom made into a film; it would be REALLY sickening to watch, but there was just something about the setting of this, the interaction between the characters, and the whole thematic resonance of it that struck an emotional chord with me.

As a bonus, the ebook version of Woom (and probably the print book as well) features an excerpt from Duncan Ralston’s 2020 novel The Midwives, which I’ll definitely be seeking out.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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